Uncomfortable Freedom: Donald Trump, Jacob Zuma, and Democracy


Written by: Laurette Marais

the-white-house-1623005_960_720The world is trying to make sense of the thought of Donald Trump as President of the United States. And it is struggling.

Here is a man who cannot easily be described as flip-flopping, because that would require that he state and endorse two opposing positions clearly enough to constitute a flip, and he will now be the 45th President of the land of the free.

The media has already begun finding fault – with the electorate. Some are openly hostile, lamenting the victory of sexism, racism and all manner of ‘isms’ over supposed common sense, while others are more kindly in their patronising pieces on how poor dunces were forced by the system to vote for Trump because they did not know better. This is being followed by an onslaught of fact-checking and number crunching to determine where these vermin crept from their holes, and how a better system can keep them in check next time. We already seem to know that a college education made people much more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, and this is repeated knowingly and tragically as though that clears it all up.

In South Africa, this all feels eerily familiar.

We have a demagogue as a president who has been voted in twice by millions of people who have themselves been left far behind by the African National Congress’ cadre enrichment program. Jacob Zuma has danced and laughed his way through scandals that surely, surely ought to have sunk him by now. Why do South Africans still vote for the ANC, and why did Americans elect Donald Trump? Can they not see how they are electing the very people who have made a living of trampling all over them?

The answer, I believe, is to be found in the fact that humans are irreducibly complex beings possessing something that nothing else does: a will, a heart, a soul. People cannot be reduced to data points or sets of properties, but are multi-faceted beings living as mothers, husbands, teachers, construction workers, professors, friends, neighbours, philosophers, clowns, and countless other things. Though statistical analysis might give some insight into the behaviour of groups of people, statistics work best when your data points do not yearn: for love, for freedom, for fullfillment, for revenge.

People care about facts, yes, but they tend to care most about the facts that are immediately relevant to their lives. And how are we to know whether that means affording rent or stopping babies being murdered or making America great again, or all, or none of the above, or something else that can hardly be put into words? (By no-one, let alone pollsters with questionnaires.) Statistics, by its nature, is reductionist. That is the fatal flaw when it comes to doing maths about humans.

In reality, democracy hinges on a very uncomfortable and profoundly ideological premise: that the will of the people, somehow, ultimately, is better than the will of any configuration of the privileged few. When put like that, we would all agree. But there is something hidden there that seems to be overlooked in recent times: better – in what way? Better for the economy? Better for housing or basic service delivery? Better for job security?

No. Better for freedom. Democracy in its modern form, values the ability of ordinary people to choose their government as a higher good, than whether a government governs “well” according to some set of markers. This is a dangerous premise, as countless career politicians have learnt and power-hungry scoundrels instinctively know. (Some are the embodiment of both, and have recently received their just deserts for underestimating this brute fact and trying to find a way around it.) Democracy values freedom above comfort and safety and even food on the table.

Ah, but that’s exactly the problem, you say. We should make basic rights and freedoms part of these markers of a “good” government. Yes, the more liberties a government protects, the better it is for freedom, and a government that tramples on liberties is obviously worse. But this is a category error, because a government that derives its authority from anything other than the will of the people to govern may graciously protect all kinds of liberties – it may even afford more liberties than some given democratically-elected government – and yet it will be fundamentally authoritarian. In such a system, all rights and liberties are bestowed on ordinary people as favours by a privileged few. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain a world of comforts, and lose his own freedom?

I will admit that the fundamental freedom to choose a government does not, in the real world, function independently from basic rights and liberties. By no merit of my own, I cannot know how much freedom matters to someone who is hungry every day. In the end, however, democracy is the assertion that it is more valuable to be free to choose a “bad” government than it is to live comfortably under a “good” authoritarian regime. I can only speculate as to why people keep voting for the ANC and for people like Donald Trump, but their freedom to do so is the very heart and soul of democracy.

Author: Laurette Marais is a wife, a mother and a PhD student in computer science.